Wednesday, January 26

Central America: Guatemala’s Empty Plates | Future Planet

Teresa Raymundo does not remember the last time she ate chicken. Not her, not her five children. “I think about a month ago,” he guesses. And meat? “Oh no, much less.” The menu – when there is one – is repeated morning and night: corn tortillas and salt. “Sometimes beans and sometimes just rice breakdown“, the Mint. Since the pandemic hit Chiquimula, in eastern Guatemala, families who were already starving have looked into the abyss. Hurricanes Eta and Iota also hit this area and put the resilience of a whole generation of mothers to the test. In this unfortunate department, 38% of children suffer from chronic malnutrition, a stunting of a minor due to food insecurity. Within that percentage are the two-year-old Raymundo twins, for whom even smiling is an effort.

They both stumble awkwardly and hide from visitors. They look suspiciously and with a weariness unbefitting of their age. Their mother says that they hardly play, that they “stay rest in peace”. Hunger is the explanation. The first five years of a child are important, but the first two are key; they predict the future. “They are essential for motor, cognitive and physical development,” explains Ana Lucía Salazar, Oxfam nutrition officer in the field. “If a child does not measure and weigh what he should at this stage, the rest of his adult life will be conditioned; it will take longer to learn to read and write, their organs will form later… they have so little energy that they hardly laugh and the simplest tasks are difficult ”. For this reason, this disease is known as “life imprisonment.”

María Ana Ramírez (24) holds her daughter Yesmin (four years old) while her arm is measured to rule out symptoms of acute malnutrition.
María Ana Ramírez (24) holds her daughter Yesmin (four years old) while her arm is measured to rule out symptoms of acute malnutrition.Santiago Mesa

This disease is carried by one in every two children in Guatemala; 46.5% according to the last National Maternal and Child Survey, from 2014-2015. A situation that, according to experts, has worsened in the last two years due to the pandemic and hurricanes Eta and Iota, which hit Central America in November. The country of the quetzal already carried the title of being the sixth country with the highest rates of malnutrition in the world and the first in Latin America. “We have the hunger figures for a country at war, without being so,” says Abelardo Villafuerte Villeda, delegate from Chiquimula, one of the historically most affected departments, with an updated rate in the last quarter of the year of 38% of chronic malnutrition.

At least 515 children suffer from acute malnutrition, an even more critical variable that is measured based on weight and that affected 15,395 children throughout the country in 2019 and increased to 27,913 in 2020. “Although we are below the national average, they are soaring figures. But a lot of political will is lacking to tackle this problem, ”he criticized by phone.

If a child does not measure and weigh what he owes in the first two years, he will be conditioned for the rest of his adult life

Ana Lucía Salazar, Oxfam Nutrition Officer

“And this is only going to get worse,” says María Claudia Santizo, UNICEF nutrition officer in Guatemala, “there is no way it will improve with the loss of livelihoods that occurred in 2020.” Santizo also emphasizes that the figures only decrease with committed political leaders. “The desire has to be translated into budgets. Malnutrition has been on the government’s priority level since 2005. In the last three governments since then, strategies have been put forward to address it, but when push comes to shove, there are no funds, inputs, or human resources reaching rural areas. And there is a huge gap there, one that grows and grows ”, he explains through a video call.

The Shadow of the Dry Corridor

The gap is not just national. The data on hunger and its consequences are a huge shadow that clouds the Dry Corridor, an area that encompasses several Central American countries that are very prone to droughts. Here the extreme poverty figures skyrocket. A recent study prepared by the Consortium of Humanitarian Organizations alerts that 102,436 families (86% of those surveyed) live in food insecurity. The breakdown by country indicates that Guatemala and Nicaragua are the nations with the most hungry households, each with 31% of the registered cases, followed by Honduras, with 25% and El Salvador with approximately 12%. Cyclones are behind those worse statistics. According to Unicef ​​estimates, they harmed 4.6 million people in Central America. Hurricanes were literally rain that fell on the wet.

Teresa Raymundo buys chicken in the Municipal Market of Jocotán, in Chiquimula, with the help of Oxfam.
Teresa Raymundo buys chicken in the Municipal Market of Jocotán, in Chiquimula, with the help of Oxfam.Santiago Mesa

In the Dry Corridor, rurality is synonymous with poverty. According to a report by Oxfam Intermón and the London School of Economics, malnutrition is 60 times higher in some rural indigenous schools (in which it even reaches 100%) than in mestizo capital cities, in which it does not exceed 1.7%. “The actions of the plans are made, but they do not reach the necessary coverage,” says Santizo. For the expert, Peru is a model country in the same struggle. “The success of the Government, which no longer even has to worry about chronic malnutrition, but rather obesity, was inter-institutional coordination. They did manage to make comprehensive changes that we have not achieved here ”.

We have the figures of the hunger of a country at war, without being it

Abelardo Villafuerte Villeda, delegate of Chiquimula

The Raymundo family house is a clear example of how rurality condemns. To get to this small adobe house without water or electricity, you have to climb a steep slope and get to a single point on the bus, infrequently. “There you already have an hour,” he says. The journey to the community of Camotán, the closest urban nucleus, is another 40 minutes. “Many of the mothers do not follow up on the children precisely for this reason,” says Omar Ramírez, Oxfam’s Humanitarian Response and Resilience project officer in Guatemala, “because it is a huge effort to transfer the children to health posts” . Therefore, it is this entity that moves here once a month together with a local entity, Asedechi in return for the project.

It is Wednesday and from early in the morning, about thirty mothers wait patiently for “those from Oxfam” to arrive at a simple concrete structure in the Anicillo Community, Jocotán, Chiquimula, which today will serve as a medical consultation. All of them were transported there in a van of the organization that tries not to make the dispersion of housing an obstacle. It is a day for weight and height control for children under five years of age.

In line, patient and with a smile that can be seen even with the mask on, is María Ana Ramírez, a 24-year-old woman, with her daughter Yesmin Fabiola, four. This single mother has not had the means to feed the little girl and her six-year-old son with much more than tortillas and salt. At home, two hours’ walk from the meeting point, the three of them live in a room that serves as a kitchen and a bedroom. The bed is a few inches from the wood stove that permeates the entire room with black smoke. According to Unicef ​​figures, only 43% of children from 6 to 23 months consume the minimum acceptable diet, and only 26% of mothers are sufficiently informed about complementary feeding.

María Ana Ramírez's house, which is a room and a wood stove at the same time, in Chiquimula, Guatemala.
María Ana Ramírez’s house, which is a room and a wood stove at the same time, in Chiquimula, Guatemala.Santiago Mesa

The little girl has been suffering from chronic malnutrition for a couple of years. That is why the mother does not lose control. Yesmin climbs on the weight and makes an effort not to move without letting go of her mother’s skirt. It is one of the few that does not burst into tears in full consultation. He even looks curiously at the wooden box in which they check how many centimeters it has grown. “He’s a little better,” the cheerful nutritionist tells him. “Have you gotten sick with a fever, cough, or diarrhea lately?” She asks one by one. The young woman shakes her head. In addition to the measurements, Oxfam provides 145 queztales (about 16 euros) per month for each member of the most vulnerable families. In the municipality of Jocotán and Camotán, there are 171. The aid is granted during the four months of what is known as “seasonal hunger”.

“Vitamins pa ‘ thin children with bad color “

Teresa Raymundo renders the help she received this morning. It moves like a fish in water in the Municipal Market of Jocotán in Chiquimula. You know where vegetables and a pound of chicken are cheaper. This meat is one of the first things you buy. After consulting the price in two stalls, he pays 44 quetzals (five euros) for two kilos. “I would take more, but I don’t have a fridge,” he justifies. The bustle of the market sneaks into the conversation. In the background, a ditty sounds on a portable speaker: “It is for the blood, the brain and the memory. I have vitamins pa ‘ gain weight, cream pimples and removes stains. Vitamin jars pa ‘ thin children with bad color ”. The saleswoman puts the chicken pieces in a black bag that Teresa carefully keeps in an orange plastic bag that she carries on her shoulder.

He buys vegetables and fruits in front, and continues to the store where he buys 20 kilos of corn. “My children are craving cereal and milk,” he says with a bitter smile, “but a bag little girl It costs 30 (3.3 euros). It is very expensive. But I have some rice, I’ll make rice pudding ”. By the time he gets home, it’s time for breakfast and lunch. But the dinner plates will not be empty. At least for a few days.

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